Warner Music Group CEO Robert Kyncl says that, in all the decades he’s lived in the United States, no one has ever guessed the origin of his surname.
When pronounced correctly, Kyncl rhymes with “tinsel”, and it’s a diminutive form of an old Germanic word that translates as “brave counsel.”
That’s altogether fitting for someone who has helped guide several of the world’s most prominent media brands through times of fundamental transformation.
“Everything I had done before was about subscriptions… YouTube was the opposite of that. I figured, I kind of know the other side. This would be an incredible challenge, to be part of the team that figures it out….”
Kyncl was a key player in transforming Netflix from a mail-order DVD service into the streaming video giant it is today, and in developing the process by which YouTube overcame its problems with copyright-infringing content, helping turn the company from a bastion of IP piracy into a law-abiding and central player in the media and entertainment world.
Today, Kyncl is once again guiding a major entertainment brand through a tumultuous era – this time Warner Music Group, at a time when the globalization of musical talent is changing the face of the industry, and generative AI is shaking the industry to its core – and presenting plenty of opportunity for leaders like Kyncl to offer brave counsel.
Robert Kyncl: From Czechoslovakia to America
Born in 1970 in what was at the time communist Czechoslovakia, Kyncl grew up under an oppressive regime where information was strictly controlled – a reality that he says has shaped his view of the media environment, and given him a passion for openness.
As the “black sheep” of his family, he eschewed the family business – medicine – and shortly after communism fell in Eastern Europe, he migrated to the US, where he studied at the State University of New York and Pepperdine University, graduating with an MBA in 1997.
He began his career in the mailroom of talent agency J. Michael Bloom, before moving on to relatively brief stints at HBO and children’s entertainment startup ALFY.
Then in 2003 came the opportunity that would define the early years of his career: Netflix, where Kyncl started at a time when the movie subscription service had just 1,000 subscribers.
As the company’s Vice President of Content, Kyncl was a part of the effort, starting in 2005, to pivot Netflix to a streaming model. Netflix launched its streaming service in 2007, and the rest is history.
Robert Kyncl: The YouTube Years
“Everything I had done before was about subscriptions, I was at HBO for a little bit, at a kids’ subscription service for a little bit, and YouTube was the opposite of that. I figured, I kind of know the other side. This would be an incredible challenge, to be part of the team that figures it out….”
And figure it out he did – by helping shift the company to the subscriber model Kyncl was exposed to early on in his career. As of 2022, YouTube had 80 million paying subscribers, including within its Premium and YouTube Music services.
Kyncl was also part of the effort to “legitimize” YouTube – to shift the service away from its reputation as as hotbed of copyright-infringing content, an effort he talked about at a Code Conference Q&A in 2023.
“When YouTube was formed… people started to upload content, including copyrighted material, which, obviously, put YouTube into hot water with lots of different copyright holders,” Kyncl said.
“And I had the privilege of working through a lot of that and fix it up… We made a very important decision, which was to go above and beyond the law, and build a fingerprinting software that allowed us to track the copyright on our platform, and then have commercial relationship[s] with copyright holders to send them the money. Out of that we built a multi-billion-dollar business…”
Kyncl was referring to YouTube’s Content ID system, which scours uploaded videos for copyrighted content (video and audio), then offers the copyright owner the option to monetize that video, or to request that it be taken down.
The innovative system has essentially allowed YouTube users to upload content without paying much attention to copyright, while ensuring that copyright owners are paid.
Robert Kyncl: From Social Media to the Music Business
Kyncl’s experience with Content ID colors his view of one of the major challenges (and opportunities) he’s faced since becoming CEO of Warner Music Group on January 1, 2023 – artificial intelligence.
Even as music industry companies, including WMG, adapt AI tools to help their artists create and improve their backend operations, generative AI threatens their business model – either by flooding the streaming services with enormous amounts of rapidly-created content, or through deepfakes such as the fake Drake track that went viral in the spring of 2023.
Kyncl sees a parallel between this situation and the online piracy of the early 2000s, which the entertainment industry overcame in part through solutions such as Content ID.
“AI is that with new super tools,” Kyncl says.
“The music business is in a very different place than it was ten years ago. Now, we’re in a position of strength. That is the time to get ahead for the future.”
In a New Year memo to staff at the beginning of 2024, Kyncl exhorted WMG staff to “remember… that our world has fundamentally changed… The music business is in a very different place than it was ten years ago. Now, we’re in a position of strength. That is the time to get ahead for the future.”
Laying out a broad plan for the WMG’s next 10 years, Kyncl asserted that Warner Music Group is “at its strongest when we embrace the dualities of our business… “We’re showing that WMG can be the best of both worlds: Music and Technology, Global and Local, Scale and Speed, Data and Instinct, Individual Talent and Collective Impact…Today and Tomorrow.”
He added: “We’re going to fuel the growth of this company using the same resourcefulness and determination with which we develop our artists and songwriters. Because ultimately that’s what will serve them best.”Music Business Worldwide